By Monica Westin
Elizabeth Bishop’s correspondence with the editors at The New Yorker who published the majority of her poems, lasting from 1934 until the poet’s death in the fall of 1979, are a provocative gesture at revealing the woman behind the writing, but they leave the reader wanting much more—in a way that’s entirely apropos to the way she worked and lived.
On the one hand, the letters are entirely fitting for both Bishop’s poetry and general ethos; the genius of her poems often lies in their sensitive impersonality, and at a time when confessional poetry was de rigueur, Bishop’s strength lay in restraining herself from personal sentiment and finding an articulate but reserved mode of expression. Bishop, a U.S. Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner, was also famously protective of her personal life, not wanting to be known as a lesbian poet. The letters echo this reticence, but in so doing they don’t round out any sense of the woman herself.
If you aren’t familiar with Bishop’s work or her biography, the letters are often somewhat puzzling or enigmatic. The bulk of the discussions between Bishop and her editors are mostly business (contracts and checks, which Bishop increasingly has a harder time tracking) and editorial minutiae, often punctuation, in submitted poems, with the poems under discussion rarely included in the volume. It’s best read with Bishop’s “Complete Poems” as a companion, after familiarizing yourself with Bishop’s personal life—her partner, Alice, is only mentioned in a few letters, with little reference to who she is. And while her letters mention names of poets, such as Bishop’s mentor Marianne Moore and lifelong pen-pal Robert Lowell, they’re often in passing. Bishop doesn’t gossip, and she discusses other writers usually only when their work she admires. It’s hard not to wish for more details about her personal relationships; for example, the majority of the letters are written when Bishop was living with her Brazilian partner Lota. Readers get no sense of the relationship and its breakdown into tempestuousness—or any explanation of Lota’s job as an architect, although Bishop describes some of her projects. After Bishop left her, Lota committed suicide while visiting her, but all we learn from the book is an italicized note between two letters that Lota had overdosed. Characteristically, none of Bishop’s letters comment on this event, and the moment in the book is jarring and confusing.
Joelle Biele’s well-researched editing and introduction help explain some of the tension between Bishop and the magazine, as well as beautifully introduce the editors at The New Yorker, who come across more fully and warmly than Bishop herself in their correspondence. Howard Moss, the avuncular and travel-phobic poetry editor and Katharine White, the charming and warm editor at large (and wife of E.B. White) clearly adore Bishop, and it’s captivating to watch them try to get her to send them poems. The strongest impression that Bishop makes is that of a somewhat absentminded, slightly negligent dreamer. It’s hard not to laugh as she promises to send a travel essay on Sable Island to White for almost a decade before White, after gently reminding her in various ways, gives up, but just as often you feel anxious on Bishop’s behalf as she promises them new work more quickly than she writes it. Anyone who has ever felt pressure to deliver writing for a deadline will feel the agony of Bishop, who produced less than a hundred poems in her lifetime, at feeling pressure from various editors to send more poems before she felt they were ready. Her contract with The New Yorker was a source of stress to her; she received a salary/allowance for giving them the first cut at poems she wrote, even if she wanted them to be published elsewhere, and the letters contain subtle bargaining and a less-than-subtle, but brief, break from her contract as her frustrations with the magazine mounted. The editorial process at The New Yorker was obviously exacting and often stifling for Bishop, though there are few moments when she expresses frustration.
The letters are most poignant towards the end of Bishop’s life, as she wrote “Geography III” and had many of its poems, including “One Art” (which Bishop describes as a poem that makes everyone sad), published in The New Yorker. But ultimately, unlike, say, the letters of Flannery O’Connor, which Bishop mentions reading in one of her later letters, this volume doesn’t stand on its own as a piece of literature—it’s just another puzzle piece in the enigmatic life of the poet.
This year marks the centennial of Elizabeth Bishop’s birth, and the University of Chicago’s program in poetry and poetics and The Poetry Foundation are sponsoring a free reading of the letters February 17, 6pm, at International House, 1414 East 59th Street, with parts read by local actors and editor Biele narrating and answering questions.
Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker: The Complete Correspondence
Edited by Joelle Biele
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $35, 496 pages